Inside the Wagner Group’s Armed Uprising

How Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private military company went from fighting alongside Russian forces in Ukraine to staging a mutiny at home.

On May 20th, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, stood in the center of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, and recorded a video. The city once housed seventy thousand people but was now, after months of relentless shelling, nearly abandoned. Whole blocks were in ruins, charred skeletons of concrete and steel. Smoke hung over the smoldering remains like an early-morning fog. Prigozhin wore combat fatigues and waved a Russian flag. “Today, at twelve noon, Bakhmut was completely taken,” he declared. Armed fighters stood behind him, holding banners with the Wagner motto: “Blood, honor, homeland, courage.”

More than anyone else in Russia, Prigozhin had used the war in Ukraine to raise his own profile. In the wake of the invasion, he transformed Wagner from a niche mercenary outfit of former professional soldiers to the country’s most prominent fighting force, a private army manned by tens of thousands of storm troopers, most of them recruited from Russian prisons. Prigozhin projected an image of himself as ruthless, efficient, practical, and uncompromising. He spoke in rough, often obscene language, and came to embody the so-called “party of war,” those inside Russia who thought that their country had been too measured in what was officially called the “special military operation.” “Stop pulling punches, bring back all our kids from abroad, and work our asses off,” Prigozhin said, the month that Bakhmut fell. “Then we’ll see some results.”

The aura of victory in Bakhmut enhanced Prigozhin’s popularity. He had an almost sixty-per-cent approval rating in a June poll conducted by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling agency; nineteen per cent of those surveyed said they were ready to vote for him for President. His new status seemed to come with a special license to criticize top officials in Moscow. Prigozhin had accused his rivals in the Russian military, Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of general staff, of withholding artillery ammunition from Wagner. “That’s direct obstruction, plain and simple,” Prigozhin said. “It can be equated with high treason.” In the battle for Bakhmut, he said, “five times more guys died than should have” because of the officials’ indecisive leadership.

Temperamentally, Shoigu was Prigozhin’s opposite: a deft navigator of Kremlin politics, seemingly devoid of strong emotion. For more than a decade, he had used his proximity and loyalty to Vladimir Putin—the two often vacationed together, hunting and fishing in the Siberian forest—to safeguard his position. According to a source in the Russian defense sector, Shoigu, at a meeting last spring, insisted that the Defense Ministry had always provided Wagner troops with whatever they needed, regardless of his personal grievances with Prigozhin. “As minister, I have always distinguished between the leader of this organization and its fighters,” Shoigu said. The message, the source noted, was clear: “We don’t particularly love them, but we have to admit they have a certain effectiveness.”

Throughout his reign, Putin had permitted rival factions to clash and to jockey for his favor. In such a system, no one individual or clan could acquire enough independent standing to challenge his rule. And so, for a time, Putin appeared to welcome Prigozhin’s feud with the Defense Ministry. “At first, Putin saw Prigozhin as a useful instrument to pressure the military,” a Western intelligence official said. “Prigozhin told Putin, We are not doing so great—we are taking heavy casualties. He was a way to point out problems.”

In the end, Shoigu exacted his revenge not with a meme-ready viral video but in the dry language of bureaucratic regulations. In mid-June, the Defense Ministry announced that all members of “volunteer units,” a shrouded reference to Wagner and other private military companies, would be required to sign contracts with the ministry by July 1st. These formations would lose their independence and fall under the Russian military’s unified command. Prigozhin resisted, saying he would refuse the order. A few days later, Putin agreed that the contracts were needed, effectively siding with Shoigu.

Prigozhin remained defiant. “None of Wagner’s fighters is ready to go down the path of shame,” he said. “They will not sign.” But the decision, with Putin’s backing, put him in an impossible spot. “The Defense Ministry’s position was that if Wagner doesn’t agree to the contracts then that’s it—they’re removed from Ukrainian operations,” a former Russian military official told me. If Prigozhin relented and signed, he would lose his autonomy and influence—he would no longer be Shoigu’s rival but his subordinate. The Western intelligence official said that Prigozhin “saw that, if Wagner fell under the control of the Defense Ministry, then it’s the end of Wagner as it previously existed. And maybe, he feared, that would mean the beginning of his personal end.”

With the July 1st deadline looming, Prigozhin stepped up the ferocity of his attacks, declaring that Shoigu and other top military leaders, along with the Russian oligarchy, were “mentally ill scumbags” who had led Russia to disaster in Ukraine. More shocking, Prigozhin questioned the very basis for the war, an outburst that could easily be read as an attack on Putin himself. “There was nothing extraordinary happening on the eve of February 24th,” he said, referring to the date of Russia’s invasion last year. “The Ministry of Defense is trying to deceive the public and the President and spin the story that there were insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they were going to attack us, together with the whole NATO bloc.”

That night, Prigozhin announced a “march for justice”—that is, an armed mutiny. “The evil being wrought by the military leadership of this country must be stopped,” he said.

Shortly after midnight on June 24th, the first column of Wagner fighters left Ukraine and passed through the Russian border post at Novoshakhtinsk. A participant in the uprising later told BBC News Russian that border guards put up no resistance, and that traffic police even saluted the convoy. “Most of Wagner’s lower-level personnel didn’t understand what they were getting involved in,” Denis Korotkov, a Russian journalist who has investigated Wagner for years, told me. “Whereas the people on the command level are so indebted to Prigozhin for their positions and wealth that they had no choice but to participate.”

Later that morning, the armed men arrived at the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, a primary command center for operations in Ukraine. They parked their armored personnel carriers outside the building. Masked men carrying Kalashnikovs secured positions around the perimeter. Prigozhin entered the headquarters and, from the building’s interior courtyard, demanded that Shoigu and Gerasimov be brought to him. “Until they are handed over to us, we will stay here and blockade the city,” he said. Wagner forces, he added, were also headed for Moscow. Outside the city of Voronezh, they shot down Russian military helicopters and a command aircraft, killing at least a dozen servicemen.

It was the most dramatic uprising in Russia since August, 1991, when the leaders of the K.G.B., the Defense Ministry, and the Communist Party put the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, under house arrest and seized power for themselves. That coup ended after just three days, but it exposed the fissures in the Soviet system and helped lead to its collapse, four months later. Now Putin was facing a rebellion from within his own ranks. “Everyone was stunned,” the former Russian military official said. “It was surreal.”

In a televised address, Putin called Wagner’s actions “treason,” “a subversion from within,” “a stab in the back.” In response, Prigozhin announced that he feared the “moment when blood could be spilled” and called off the insurrection. The reason for his retreat was clear. “Prigozhin assumed his krysha”—Russian slang for mafia-style protection and impunity—“was inviolable, but that was a mistake,” the Western intelligence official said. “He got scared when he realized that Putin could move against him.” The Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, had reportedly brokered a deal between Prigozhin and the government, but, in fact, he was less an independent mediator than a cutout employed by the Kremlin. Wagner forces would join the Defense Ministry, disband, or relocate to Belarus. Charges against Prigozhin would be dropped. Putin would stay above the fray.

The former Russian military official called Prigozhin’s rebellion “an act of desperation” and “pure fantasy.” But it also represented a grave political setback for Putin, who was supposed to be the omnipotent tsar, impossible to frighten or blackmail. “Putin destroyed a whole propaganda narrative he himself had constructed,” a member of the Russian political élite said. “It looked extremely humiliating.” The source in the Russian defense sector agreed. “Of course Putin is weakened,” the source said. “First, he got himself into a war he couldn’t win, and, when he inevitably encountered difficulties, he tried to find a cheap solution by allowing for the creation of an army of criminals—and then that army ended up turning against him.”

“Wagner was a rumor before it was a brand,” Candace Rondeaux, the director of an open-source intelligence program at the think tank New America, told me. Even for experts, identifying the group’s precise origins has been tricky. In the early two-thousands, the Kremlin, as part of an effort to modernize the Russian armed forces, began considering the use of private military companies. Tens of thousands of security contractors were then working in Iraq for the U.S. government, under the command of private firms like Blackwater. The former Russian military official told me, “The idea was that Russia also needs such a structure to operate in places where the official participation of the Russian armed forces is impractical for political reasons.”

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and mounted a covert invasion of the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, under the guise of a separatist uprising. The Kremlin needed to dispatch combat-seasoned troops while maintaining the fiction that it was not intervening militarily. “Things were very messy on the ground,” Ilya Barabanov, a Russian investigative journalist who is working on a book with Korotkov about Wagner, said. “A bunch of armed formations and battalions with unclear allegiances and command structures were running around all over the place.” One of them was a unit called Wagner.

Wagner’s fighters were mostly former members of élite Russian military units. “The selection process was tough,” a senior Ukrainian intelligence official told me. “From thirty candidates, they might take two or three.” But those who made the cut were paid about two hundred thousand rubles a month (approximately five thousand dollars), which was more than ten times what an ordinary member of the Russian Army might earn. They trained at a base in Molkino, in southern Russia, that abuts a facility belonging to the G.R.U., Russia’s military-intelligence directorate.

The name Wagner came from the call sign of its first commander, Dmitry Utkin, a former lieutenant colonel in the G.R.U., who is said to be a fan of the German composer Richard Wagner. For Utkin, the appeal went beyond just admiration for the “Ring” cycle or “Parsifal”; Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer, and Utkin was known to exhibit fascist sympathies. A former Wagner fighter told me that Utkin greeted subordinates by saying “Heil!” and wore a Wehrmacht field cap around the unit’s training grounds. The Dossier Center, an investigative outlet funded by the exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, published internal Wagner documents, which showed that Utkin occasionally signed his name with two lightning bolts—the insignia of the Nazi S.S.

If Utkin was Wagner’s commander in the field, then Prigozhin was its C.E.O., financier, and bureaucratic champion. Prigozhin was born in Soviet Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in 1961, nine years after Putin. As a teen-ager, he took up with a gang of petty thieves who robbed apartments. One night, in 1980, the gang mugged a woman on a dark Leningrad street. Prigozhin was sentenced to thirteen years in prison and served nine. His release coincided with the final stage of the Soviet Union’s slow-motion collapse, and, for his next act, he launched a hot-dog business. He and his associates mixed the mustard in the kitchen of his apartment, while his mother counted the profits—as much as a thousand dollars a month, a significant sum for most Russians at the time.

Prigozhin quickly expanded into supermarkets and a catering business, and, in 1996, he opened the Old Customs House, one of St. Petersburg’s early high-end restaurants. Tony Gear, a British restaurateur who had worked at the Savoy hotel, in London, signed on to run the place. City luminaries, including the mayor at the time, Anatoly Sobchak, who was then Putin’s boss, came to feast on oysters, caviar, foie gras, and crabs from Kamchatka. In the libertine spirit of the Russian nineties, strippers entertained the crowd, until Prigozhin ended the practice. “We don’t need striptease,” Prigozhin said, as Gear recalled in an interview with a Russian outlet. “People come for the food and service.”

Two years later, Prigozhin opened New Island, a restaurant on a boat that sailed up and down the Neva River. After Putin became President, in 2000, he frequently dined there with foreign counterparts, including Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush; in 2003, Putin celebrated his birthday there. “Putin saw how I grew a whole business out of a small stall,” Prigozhin later said. “He saw that I am not above personally serving a plate to people of royal standing, because they are my guests.”

In photographs from the era, Prigozhin is often seen hovering over a table in a dark suit, plucking a cloche from a dinner plate. But he was also known to be a demanding, even abusive, boss. “He created a beautiful image in the front of the house,” a person from the St. Petersburg restaurant scene said. “But he achieved this with frightful methods.” The man had heard accounts of Prigozhin berating and hitting members of his staff, and, in one instance, tying a chef to a radiator in the back of the establishment. (Prigozhin did not respond to a request for comment.)

His company Concord began catering Kremlin events, including the Presidential inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008. Its affiliates became the main supplier of meals to public schools in Moscow. But the largest orders came from the Defense Ministry, which, in 2012 alone, awarded Prigozhin’s companies three billion dollars in contracts to feed soldiers at bases around the country. Prigozhin and his family moved into a sprawling compound in St. Petersburg, with an indoor swimming pool and a helicopter pad. They flew on a private jet and owned a yacht. “A typical criminal,” a powerful Russian businessperson said of Prigozhin. “Nothing less, nothing more.”

Prigozhin combined an entrepreneurial spirit with a clear sense of how to serve his patron. He is credited with the creation, in 2013, of the Internet Research Agency, otherwise known as the St. Petersburg troll farm, which employed dozens of tech-savvy young people to spread propaganda, engage in influence operations, and otherwise cause mischief on social networks. (A number of its employees, including Prigozhin, were later indicted by U.S. prosecutors for their role in Russia’s interference in the 2016 Presidential election.)

For a budding oligarch like Prigozhin, the murkiness of the war in the Donbas presented an even greater opportunity for profit and influence. “A bunch of people close to the Kremlin were playing their own games,” Barabanov said. “Trying to get noticed, taking part in one venture or another, so they could say to Putin, ‘Look, we did our part.’ ” Wagner, he went on, “was Prigozhin’s initiative, with the Kremlin’s blessing.”

In the Donbas war, according to Ukrainian intelligence, Wagner fighters participated in the shooting down of an Ilyushin IL-76 transport plane, which killed forty Ukrainian paratroopers and nine crew members; the battle for the Luhansk airport, which pro-Russian units seized after a months-long siege; and the so-called Debaltseve cauldron battle, in the winter of 2015, in which Russian forces moved to encircle and expel the Ukrainian military from a central railway hub in the Donbas. And yet, according to Barabanov, Wagner, compared with many of the other paramilitary units active in the region, was still “rather small in size and importance.”

In 2015, Kyiv and Moscow signed the second part of the ceasefire protocols known as the Minsk agreements. Around this time, the Kremlin became less tolerant of the warring rebel factions running around the separatist territories. A number of their most charismatic and ideologically driven leaders started to turn up dead. In May, 2015, a prominent commander in Luhansk, Alexey Mozgovoy, who led the Prizrak, or “Ghost,” Brigade, was killed, along with half a dozen others, in an ambush on his convoy. Another commander in Luhansk, who led a group known as the Batman Battalion, was gunned down, as was the separatist mayor of Pervomaisk. That December, Pavel Dryomov, the leader of a Cossack militia, was killed when his car exploded on the day of his wedding party.

Publicly, pro-Russian outlets blamed Ukrainian sabotage groups for the violence. But some suspected that the killings were carried out by Wagner. The Russian nationalist historian Evgeny Norin, who was sympathetic to the separatist cause, wrote a column describing Wagner as an “ominous Russian Blackwater, without official status or state recognition, covered by a veil of secrecy, obeying no-one-knows-who and carrying out the most dark and dirty tasks.” Barabanov spoke to a number of separatist fighters and commanders at the time: “They all told me, ‘We know it’s being done by Wagnerovtsy.’ ”

In Ukraine, Wagner maintained a limited involvement, with never more than a few hundred troops deployed at a time. The war in Syria, which Russia entered in September, 2015, to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, served as the mercenary group’s true coming-out party. “In Syria, Russia used Wagner to reinforce units of local allies and as a main assault force,” Ruslan Pukhov, director of cast, an independent defense think tank in Moscow, said. “They weren’t supporting the war effort, in other words, but leading it.”

Putin initially sold the campaign to the Russian public as largely cost-free—the fighting would be done from the sky, by the Russian Air Force, he said—but it was clear that a contingent of ground troops would be needed to help capture and hold territory from Assad’s enemies, which, at the time, included isis. The head of the Russian parliament’s defense committee, Vladimir Komoyedov, hinted at the plan. “It is likely that groups of Russian volunteers will appear in the ranks of the Syrian Army as combat participants,” he said. “What attracts volunteers apart from ideas? Of course, money.”

According to Ukrainian intelligence, approximately thirteen hundred Wagner fighters were flown to Syria on Russian military transport planes. Strategically, Wagner operated to further Russia’s geopolitical goals; tactically, the group was free to pursue its own spoils, including lucrative petroleum contracts that entities associated with Prigozhin received from the Assad government. “It was to everyone’s advantage and benefit,” Barabanov said. “The Kremlin can boast at home and abroad of destroying isis without facing serious losses—at least not officially. The Army can take credit for this great victory and pass it off as its own, and Wagner, or, rather, Prigozhin personally, earns twice—from sending his troops to the fight and from securing oil and energy assets as trophies.”

At the same time, Wagner was making profitable inroads in Africa. In 2017, the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, who was under indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, visited Putin at his residence in Sochi, on the Black Sea. They discussed a number of joint projects, including weapons sales and the exchange of “experts” in the defense field. By the end of the year, a contingent of Wagner operatives had landed in Khartoum to train local security forces, and the Sudanese Ministry of Minerals had awarded a gold-mining concession to a Wagner front company called M Invest. Less than two years later, Bashir was ousted in a coup, but companies linked to Prigozhin maintained de-facto control of gold-mining interests in Sudan.

The Central African Republic, a former French colony that has faced a series of civil conflicts since the nineteen-nineties, “served as the main laboratory for Wagner’s expansion,” according to Maxime Audinet, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Research, in Paris. The Wagner deployment to the C.A.R. began in 2018, with a contingent of several hundred mercenaries, who were assigned to help President Faustin-Archange Touadéra fight more than a dozen rebel groups then vying for power. French troops had largely pulled out of the C.A.R. two years earlier. Wagner instructors ran training programs for Touadéra’s soldiers. Soon, a Russian emissary acting in service of Wagner was ensconced in the Presidential palace as one of Touadéra’s top advisers. Roland Marchal, a researcher on African civil wars at Sciences Po, told me, “As Wagner learned in the C.A.R., if you start training troops, you might end up controlling the Presidency.”

In 2019, Russian diplomats and Prigozhin associates helped broker a peace agreement between the government of the C.A.R. and the rebel factions. The next year, that deal collapsed, and rebel groups launched an armed march on the capital, Bangui. Wagner fighters, along with the C.A.R. Army and a contingent of Rwandan soldiers, led a bloody counterassault. Human Rights Watch reported an incident from 2021 in which, at a checkpoint near the town of Bossangoa, Wagner forces stopped a dozen unarmed men. Their bodies were later found, beaten and riddled with bullets, in a ditch by the road. The Times obtained a report prepared for members of the U.N. Security Council which found Wagner forces complicit in numerous cases of “excessive force, indiscriminate killings, occupation of schools and looting on a large scale, including of humanitarian organizations.”

In the words of a senior U.S. intelligence official, the C.A.R. is now a “proxy state.” Wagner commandos guard Touadéra and control the state customs service. Prigozhin-linked entities oversee regular propaganda campaigns, including on Radio Lengo Songo, a station Wagner created. The group also holds sway over much of the timber industry and operates a network of gold and diamond mines. In 2019, the C.A.R. government revoked the license of a Canadian company which gave it the right to mine in Ndassima, an area with gold deposits valued at more than a billion dollars, and transferred it to Midas Ressources, a company with links to Prigozhin. Diamville, a profitable precious-metals trader, is technically registered in the name of the driver of a well-known Prigozhin associate, Dmitry Sytyi, the head of the Russian House cultural center in Bangui. Yet, for all Wagner’s power in the capital, it has been largely disinterested in providing security to the rest of the country. “The truth is, Wagner is rather inefficient,” a French military official told me. “They don’t really bring stability, or even fight rebel groups all that successfully. What they do is protect the government in power and their own economic interests.”

Wagner has fought in the civil war in Libya, where it allied with the Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar, who reportedly also received the backing of France. In Mozambique, several Wagner fighters were beheaded, prompting the group to quickly pull out of the country. In 2021, the ruling military junta in Mali, which took power in a coup, invited Russia to aid in its fight against jihadist groups. The government in Bamako denies the presence of Wagner mercenaries, but journalists and human-rights agencies have linked the group’s fighters to a number of atrocities in the country, including a massacre in the village of Moura, in March, 2022, in which as many as five hundred people were killed. One thing, however, has remained constant: the principle of “se servir sur la bête,” as Christophe Gomart, the former head of French military intelligence, put it, an expression that means “to serve yourself from the beast,” or, better yet, to get your pound of flesh.

Marat Gabidullin was in his late forties when he joined Wagner, in 2015. He had spent ten years in the Russian Army, but, after leaving the service, he drifted toward alcohol abuse and a life of crime. In the mid-nineties, he spent three years in prison for shooting a small-time gangster in Siberia. After enlisting with Wagner, he was sent to Molkino for a course in assault tactics and urban warfare. “I felt reborn,” he told me recently, “as if I had returned to a familiar world, with understandable values and purpose.” His call sign was Ded, or “Grandpa.”

I met Gabidullin not long ago, at a café in the South of France. He retains the taut, coiled build of a military man. His face is tanned and sinewy, with a trim white beard. On his right hand, he wore a chunky silver ring with a skull, one of Wagner’s emblems, which he’d picked up at a market in Damascus. He recalled his time as a mercenary with a mixture of nostalgia and disappointment. “At first, I saw Wagner as a community that was performing necessary and useful functions for the country,” Gabidullin told me. “And then, after some time, it became more and more authoritarian, and I began to doubt the necessity and usefulness of what we were doing.”

His first tour was in the occupied territory of Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine. The local population was hardly welcoming of the Russia-backed fighters in their midst and often told them that they weren’t needed. “I understood that our propaganda is lying one hundred per cent,” he said. He left after two months. But, when Wagner commanders told him to go to Syria and lead a company of troops fighting isis, he thought, Now, this is more my thing.

In March, 2016, Wagner was sent to seize Palmyra, an ancient city in the desert surrounded by palm trees and mountains. The fighting there was vicious. At one point, Gabidullin said, some of his men came upon a badly wounded isis fighter. At the time, Gabidullin’s forces were deep in the mountains, with little equipment and no backup. His men shot the injured fighter. “This is the logic of war,” he said.

A few days later, Gabidullin’s unit was ambushed. He managed to fire a few shots before a grenade exploded behind him. Shrapnel tore into his head, back, and limbs. An armored personnel carrier delivered him to Russia’s Humaymim airbase, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, where he lost consciousness. He awoke, a week later, in a hospital bed in St. Petersburg. A Wagner representative handed him a secure telephone. “No. 1 wants to speak to you,” the person said. Prigozhin was on the line. “We’ve taken Palmyra,” he said, and he promised to award Gabidullin the Hero of Russia, the country’s highest military medal. Wagner also paid for a series of surgeries to remove the shrapnel and allowed Gabidullin to rest for several months at home. “Prigozhin is pragmatic,” he told me. “He regards his mercenaries as working instruments—on the one hand, he doesn’t pity them in battle or particularly value their lives, but, on the other, he keeps them in good condition, gives them what they need, offers quality care.”

To celebrate the capture of Palmyra, the Kremlin organized a concert in the city’s Roman-era amphitheatre. For the occasion, they flew the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and the world-renowned conductor Valery Gergiev in from St. Petersburg to perform Bach and Prokofiev for a crowd of Russian officials, Syrian dignitaries, and foreign journalists. Putin gave a video address that was beamed into the amphitheatre. “Any success in the fight against terrorism must be perceived by all, without exception, as a common victory,” he said. As far as Gabidullin knew, not a single Wagner fighter was invited to attend.

A video appeared online in the summer of 2017 showing Russian-speaking men in military fatigues, their faces covered, beating a Syrian man with a sledgehammer, trying to cut off his head with a knife, and ultimately decapitating him with a shovel. Novaya Gazeta, an independent paper in Moscow, later identified the torturers as Wagner fighters. Gabidullin was back in Russia when the clip surfaced. He didn’t know the perpetrators personally, but he immediately recognized which outfit they belonged to. “Inside Wagner, there was such a policy—to constantly apply methods of maximum intimidation to the enemy,” he said. “I’m not justifying this idea and, in fact, always resented it. So, what, are we going to become like isis now?”

And yet, the following year, Gabidullin returned to Syria and was made a senior adviser to the isis Hunters, some three hundred Syrian fighters who operated under Wagner leadership. Their primary task was to capture oil and gas fields that had fallen to isis. “By seizing the oil fields, you deny isis an important cash supply,” Gabidullin said. But Prigozhin had his own motive for such operations. A shell company linked to him signed a contract with the Assad government to receive a quarter of the revenue resulting from the seizures. “The Russian military has to at least take into account the interests of the Russian people,” a U.S. defense official said. “Wagner can act in pursuit of its own bottom line.”

That February, Gabidullin and his men were ordered to Deir Ezzor, in the northeast, where, they were told, they would participate in an assault on a nearby gas plant. The facility, though, was controlled not by isis but by an anti-Assad Kurdish militia. Gabidullin recalled a conversation with a Wagner commander, who told him that Prigozhin had got the necessary sign-offs. But one thing bothered Gabidullin about the plan: a group of American Special Forces were known to be aiding the Kurds, and their presence did not seem to be factored into the assault. When Gabidullin asked the commander why, he was told, “No. 1 said everything would be fine.” Gabidullin said of Prigozhin, “He was arrogant, confident in his own genius.”

On the night of February 7th, four hundred Wagner troops, accompanied by Russian T-72 tanks and heavy artillery, began to advance; Gabidullin and fifty Syrian fighters were expected to secure one of the flanks. But, as the tanks moved into firing position, they began to explode. One sped up to the right of Gabidullin, got a shot off, and then blew up. Gabidullin ordered mortar fire in the direction of the plant. A moment later, the mortar launcher and its crew were incinerated. To get a better view, Gabidullin climbed onto the roof of a nearby building. Everything was burning. A tank turret lay on the ground. The vehicles of another Wagner unit had been destroyed. Over the radio, he heard that AC-130 gunships were firing their large-calibre cannons on anything that moved down below. “I thought, What the hell is going on?” Gabidullin said. The Kurds didn’t have their own airpower; the Americans were in the fight. The radio crackled with orders to retreat.

The battle in Deir Ezzor was the most prominent clash between Russian and American fighters since the Vietnam War. Twenty-three members of Gabidullin’s unit were killed. He estimated that eighty more Wagner soldiers died in the attack. (Other estimates have suggested that two hundred Wagner personnel were killed.) Their bodies were repatriated to Russia in the course of several months, flown a few at a time, to avoid attracting too much attention. “We’re just small change,” Gabidullin said. “You can throw us to slaughter and no one will answer for this.”

An adviser to U.S. Special Forces who was familiar with the battle in Deir Ezzor told me that, at the time, the Special Forces felt that they had been ceding territory to Wagner and Syrian troops for months, lest they get drawn into a fight with Russian forces. “They were frustrated,” the adviser told me. Russian and U.S. officials had been relying on a so-called deconfliction line, a direct means of communication that was set up between the two militaries. On the night Wagner launched its assault, U.S. military officers called their Russian counterparts. According to the adviser, the Americans relayed what they saw: a group of armed fighters was approaching the plant—were they Russian? The Russian officer on the other end of the line said they were not. “Maybe they thought it was a bluff,” the adviser said, “and didn’t realize the U.S. would really attack.”

Once U.S. military officials became aware that their troops had killed dozens of Russians, there were obvious concerns about possible escalation. “Nobody completely understood the exact relationship between Wagner and the state, which is, in fact, the point,” the adviser said. “But that meant a lot of people in Washington were holding their breath, thinking, Oh, boy, this could really open up in ways that would not be good.” In the end, the Kremlin barely reacted. U.S. officials carried out a review of the incident. “We checked and double-checked and triple-checked and came to the conclusion this was not a mistake on the part of the Russians,” the adviser said. “It was interesting to see how readily Russia was willing to part with the lives of a lot of highly trained soldiers” and “to understand to what degree the Russia Defense Ministry and Wagner are allies and competing factions at the same time.”

One day last August, a helicopter made a noisy approach to a penal colony in southern Russia, flying over the barracks and landing in a large open field. Guards had gathered more than a thousand inmates, nearly the entire population of the colony, telling them to wait outside for the arrival of someone they described as an important visitor. A prisoner named Alexei, who was in his early thirties, watched as men in green army fatigues, pistols at their hips, entered the yard. They were accompanied by a man in his sixties, with a bald head and heavy jowls, who spoke to the prisoners in a manner that was blunt, profane, and matter-of-fact, as if he, too, had known the inside of the zona, as Russian prisons are called. He suggested that he had arrived with the backing of Putin to make a simple offer. Come fight with me, he said. I need killers. And I can set you free.

The speaker was Prigozhin. He didn’t hide the fact that the men would be headed for the battlefield—and that in war some people die. They would be fighting the “enemies of Russia,” whom he described as mercenaries from the U.S. and Europe. If they survived the fighting for six months, they would be pardoned and free to start a new life, with plenty of money and opportunities for their children. “Think of it as paying down your debt to your motherland in blood,” Prigozhin told the prisoners. “History will remember you.” The helicopter’s rotors were whirring again. Prigozhin was on the move, headed to other prisons. Some of his subordinates stayed behind to set up a recruitment office in the administration building.

Initially, Wagner was not included in Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine. The senior Ukrainian intelligence official said that Kremlin leaders “thought they would quickly capture Kyiv, keep government buildings and infrastructure intact, and simply take over and run the country. For such a supposedly quick mission, you don’t need mercenaries.” But as the Russian advance stalled, in the spring of 2022, the Kremlin withdrew Russian units from around Kyiv and redoubled efforts to take territory in the Donbas.

The Ukrainian military first saw Wagner fighters in the battle for Popasna, an important railway junction in the Luhansk region. “The first thing we noticed was sand-colored jeeps,” an intelligence officer with a Ukrainian brigade said. He presumed that the vehicles had arrived from the Middle East. This new contingent of fighters was markedly more proficient than the Russian forces that Ukrainian units had encountered in the early weeks of the war. Previously, most of the Ukrainian troops who were killed or wounded in Popasna had been struck with shrapnel from artillery shells; now they were taking more casualties from bullet wounds—a sign, the officer said, of Wagner troops’ superior tactical training. “This phase was tough, with no time to make sense of things,” he added.

After Popasna fell to Russia, in early May, Prigozhin promised that Wagner would next take Bakhmut, twenty miles to the west. At the time, the city was seen as a necessary gateway to capturing the whole of the Donbas, one of Putin’s chief aims in the war. The only problem was that Wagner didn’t have enough manpower, in part because of the losses it had suffered in Popasna. According to Western intelligence, Wagner leadership considered recruiting foreign fighters from Syria and sub-Saharan Africa, but this idea was rejected by the Kremlin. In Russia, Wagner was running an aggressive outreach campaign, but, as the senior Ukrainian intelligence official said, “they couldn’t assemble as many people as they needed.” So they turned to prisoners.

Alexei had landed in prison after a fight at a café in his home town, in southern Russia. He was twenty-four, married, with two young children, and was enjoying a night on the town. A scuffle broke out. Alexei pulled a knife, as did the other guy, who ended up dead. Alexei received a twenty-year sentence. He said goodbye to his family, not expecting to see his children again until they were adults. He had served nine years before Prigozhin’s visit to the prison. A few days later, he signed up to join Wagner.

I spoke to Alexei at a detention facility in Kyiv, at a meeting arranged by Ukrainian authorities. He insisted that he had not been pressured or mistreated by his captors. He was eager to tell his story, but it was impossible to verify independently many of the details. (I have chosen not to use his real name.) He told me that his first stop after leaving prison was a military airfield in Rostov-on-Don, where he was given a uniform and combat boots. At a training base in occupied Ukraine, Wagner instructors showed recruits how to load and fire a Kalashnikov rifle, and taught them the basic tactics for storming a trench. Brutality was ever present, encapsulated by a single term: obnuleniye, or “zeroing out,” Wagner slang for execution, the punishment for desertion or retreat in battle. At one point, a fellow prisoner recruit ran away from Alexei’s training base and was picked up by local police in a village nearby. Wagner security brought him to the center of the training grounds, tied him to a wooden pole, and, in front of everyone, shot him in the head. “I realized then that things are serious,” Alexei said.

After a month and a half, Alexei and ten others were brought to the “zero line,” as both Ukrainian and Russian soldiers call the very edge of the front. Their mission was to storm a three-story building, an entrenched position held by Ukrainian machine gunners and snipers. The commander of Alexei’s unit was also an inmate, who had been imprisoned on drug charges in Siberia. If anyone tried to run away, he said, he had orders to shoot him. “They told me, either I kill you or they kill me,” the commander said. “So please don’t get scared. I don’t want to kill any of you.”

The assault started before dawn. As Alexei and the men moved forward, the ground erupted in a wall of fire. Almost instantly, five men were mowed down by a machine gunner. A shell exploded in front of the commander, blowing him to pieces. Snipers fired on those left in the field. Alexei could hear someone yelling about his leg. He turned and saw one of his fellow-fighters writhing, his leg now a bloody stump. Another wave of men, all prisoners, were sent in as reinforcements. More fire, more explosions, more bodies. Wagner commanders sent in a third wave. A number of these fighters were equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, which they fired at the building before entering it. Alexei was among them. Inside, he saw the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers scattered on the ground.

The next day, Wagner commanders ordered Alexei and four others to storm a patch of woodland that shielded a Ukrainian bunker. When they crossed into the trees, two of them fell to the ground, picked off by snipers. Alexei dropped, too, and tried to lie as flat as he could. Bullets and grenades ripped through branches and leaves, sending splinters of wood whistling past. Alexei found himself beside another Wagner recruit, Yevgeny, who had been imprisoned for stealing a car while drunk one night. Their shoulders were touching. A bullet ripped into Yevgeny’s eye, and, for the next half hour, Alexei listened to him moan as he bled to death. Wagner continued to send waves of convict fighters, about ten at a time, a tactic that became known as a myasnoi shturm, or “meat storm.” After six hours, the woods grew quiet. Wagner had taken the bunker. The group’s commanders rewarded their men by letting them wash themselves in a nearby banya.

Alexei’s next orders were to join an assault on a Ukrainian position that had been dug into the top of a hill. He entered a stretch of forest as part of a group of Wagner fighters, looked down, and saw “a carpet of bodies,” he said. A guy next to him took a shot through the head. Tanks were firing, as was artillery, creating a wall of noise. Shrapnel from a 120-millimetre mortar sprayed into Alexei’s back, and he, along with other injured fighters, headed to an evacuation point. But, Alexei said, on the way he became separated from the rest and wandered the woods until he heard voices. They were speaking Russian. As he got closer, they switched to Ukrainian. Alexei saw their uniforms just as they drew their weapons and told him to put up his hands. In their dugout, the Ukrainian soldiers gave Alexei chocolate and cigarettes. He was surprised to see ordinary guys defending their country. He was expecting the foreign mercenaries that Prigozhin and the Wagner instructors had said were the enemy. At the detention center in Kyiv, Alexei told me, “I made a giant mistake.”

Wagner’s tactics made the group a vexing and persistent opponent on the battlefield. The Ukrainian intelligence officer, whose brigade fended off multiple Wagner assaults, described how, in situations in which regular Army units would retreat, Wagner continued its assault: “Part of the group is destroyed, others are wounded, and, instead of evacuating, the rest continue with the storm—this is completely unreasonable.” The threat of zeroing out meant that, “if they move forward, they at least have the chance to live another day,” the officer said. “If they go back, they’re dead for sure.”

Wagner had its own hierarchy. Higher-ranking commanders were situated in bunkers within radio range, often a few miles from the front, issuing orders to assault teams on the ground. Professional mercenaries were given the letter “A” and held back, entering the battle only once Ukrainian defenses had been softened. Recruited prisoners, who made up roughly eighty per cent of Wagner’s manpower, were given the letter “K” and deployed in waves, in intervals of fifteen or twenty minutes. “One group follows the other at a pre-planned distance,” the intelligence officer explained. “Even if you destroy the first, you have very little time to rest. The second is already advancing.” Moreover, the first wave was often used simply to draw fire, in order to identify Ukrainian positions, which were then targeted by artillery. “They are not bound by what is written in tactical manuals or taught in military academies,” the officer said. “Wagner is a private structure, free of any dogmas, and this makes it flexible, able to mutate on the battlefield, and, as a result, unpredictable.”

The commander of a Ukrainian drone squadron told me that, over many hours of observing Wagner from the sky, he had witnessed “not so much a lack of fear but, rather, the total devaluation of life.” In one case, he watched as Wagner fighters in a trench left a dead comrade in place for several days, cleaning their weapons, eating, and sleeping with the body lying just a few feet from them. “I kept waiting for them to bury him, or at least move him, but they just acted like nothing was the matter,” he said. Another Wagner unit took a wounded Ukrainian soldier prisoner, and then placed him on the edge of their trench, to keep Ukrainian forces from firing on them. The commander said that he watched, helpless, as the Ukrainian soldier flailed and lost blood, and finally froze to death.

When confronted by an armed drone, the commander said, “the regular Russian mobiks”—as mobilized recruits are called—“fall into hysterics, scatter in every direction, try to hide.” Radio intercepts pick up their frantic calls to higher-ups: “We are being shelled!” Wagner fighters from Russian prisons, however, often fire wildly into the air, trying to shoot down the drone. In some cases, they do manage to disable it; just as often, they stand in one place until they’re blown to pieces. “This isn’t bravery,” the drone commander said, “but complete craziness.”

Wagner’s use of human-wave attacks led to some limited battlefield successes. In January, Wagner captured Soledar, a small town north of Bakhmut known for its salt mines. “I want to confirm the complete liberation and cleansing of the territory of Soledar from units of the Ukrainian Army,” Prigozhin declared. “The whole city is littered with the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers.”

The place had little strategic import for the larger Russian campaign, but it was the country’s clearest military achievement in more than half a year. At first, the Defense Ministry praised Russian paratroopers for taking Soledar, with no mention of Wagner. Prigozhin alleged that Russian generals were attempting to “steal victory.” The Defense Ministry released a new statement, clarifying that the “direct assault on the residential areas of Soledar” was “successfully carried out thanks to the courageous and selfless actions of the volunteers of Wagner’s assault squads.”

When Russia launched its invasion, Andrey Medvedev assumed that he would be called up to fight. He was twenty-five years old and had spent much of his childhood in an orphanage in the Siberian city of Tomsk. As a teen-age conscript, he spent a year in the airborne infantry, an experience that had soured him on the Russian Army. He had heard about Wagner, which not only paid better but was also supposedly run more efficiently and rationally. “The Defense Ministry will screw you over,” he recalled thinking. “Wagner is run by more reliable people.”

Medvedev had spent years after his service bouncing between odd jobs—security guard, construction worker, driver—and had done a stint in prison. “I didn’t have shit,” he told me. “No home, no family, nothing.” He largely believed the propaganda he saw on television: Nazis in Ukraine were committing atrocities against a population that yearned to be liberated by Russia. He called Wagner’s recruitment hotline, in the summer of 2022. After two weeks at the base in Molkino, he was given his assignment: commander of the 1st Squad of the 4th Platoon of the 7th Assault Detachment.

Medvedev was sent to a position outside of Bakhmut, where he had ten Wagner fighters under his command—recently enlisted mercenaries, not prisoners. In one of their first assaults, he and one other member of his unit made it out unscathed. The rest were badly injured or killed. Afterward, a higher-ranking Wagner commander told him to expect some “fucking great reinforcements.” Medvedev asked whom he meant. “Killers,” the commander said.

Soon, a group of convicts arrived, many of whom appeared old and physically unwell. Medvedev described an episode in which he and his new recruits were pinned in a trench, taking heavy fire from Ukrainian soldiers. “The guys climbed in and just sat there,” he told me. Medvedev yelled at the convict soldiers, “The enemy is about to hop in this trench and start fucking shit up. What are you going to do then?” A handful of Wagner mercenaries with combat experience repelled the attack, but the episode rattled Medvedev. “There were some decent fighters,” he said, “but the majority had no clue what they were doing.” A couple of weeks of training, he said, “were barely enough to learn how to hold a machine gun and walk straight.”

One of the recruits was a convicted murderer in his mid-fifties named Yevgeny Nuzhin. Medvedev described how, at one point, their unit came under heavy fire, and everyone dispersed into the trees. Nuzhin came back without his rifle, having thrown it off in a panic. They found it lying in the shrubs. Later, the unit had to cross a clearing in range of Ukrainian artillery. Rounds were exploding around them, but Nuzhin was so winded that he could barely walk. He had lost his gun again. Medvedev ran up to him in a fury. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he demanded.

“I have high blood pressure,” Nuzhin answered.

Medvedev eventually lost track of how many convict fighters cycled through his unit. “Once we started using prisoners, it was like a conveyor belt,” he said. “A group comes—that’s it, they’re dead.” He stopped remembering their names or call signs. “A new person shows up, survives for five minutes, and he’s killed,” he said. “It was like that day after day.”

Medvedev attended a training exercise on how to defend against new weapons systems that nato countries were supplying to Ukraine. Prigozhin delivered a motivational speech, telling those in attendance, “We’re the most combat-ready division. Everyone else has shit themselves. We’re the only ones advancing.” Medvedev said that he asked Prigozhin a question: “At what price will we manage to enter Bakhmut? By walking over the corpses of our own men?” Prigozhin replied coolly, asking for his call sign and identification number. When the training was over, Medvedev reported to a Wagner officer, who asked him, “What are you running your mouth for?” He ordered Medvedev locked in a shipping container, saying, “Let him think it over.”

During another visit to a Wagner base, Medvedev came across a crowd of soldiers who were waiting for members of Wagner’s internal security department, whom they called the Chekists, a reference to the early Soviet secret police. The Chekists arrived in pickup trucks transporting two men. As the crowd looked on, they ordered the men to their knees; one of the Wagner security officers launched into a speech about how the men were traitors and cowards who had run away from battle. The Chekists shot them in the head. “I’ve seen people killed,” Medvedev told me. “Fuck, I’ve killed myself—I didn’t flinch. But I despise people who act that way.” I asked him the reason for such violent displays. “It’s obvious it comes from Prigozhin,” he said. “It’s a means of intimidation and control, to devour people and make them think only about their own self-preservation.”

Medvedev noted a video he’d seen of Nuzhin, the recruit with high blood pressure. Nuzhin had been captured by Ukrainian forces, and, as a P.O.W., recorded an interview. “I told myself that when I came I would do whatever it took to surrender,” Nuzhin said into the camera. “Because it’s not Ukraine who attacked Russia. It’s Putin who attacked Ukraine.” Two months later, a new video, titled “Hammer of Revenge,” appeared on a social-media channel associated with Wagner. Nuzhin had reportedly been part of a prisoner exchange with Russia. In the video, he is in a dark cellar, his head taped to a brick wall. “They told me I was to be tried,” Nuzhin says. A man in camouflage steps forward and swings a sledgehammer into his head, crushing his skull. Prigozhin denied that Wagner had anything to do with Nuzhin’s killing, but he made his satisfaction clear. “A dog receives a dog’s death,” he said in a statement. “Nuzhin betrayed his people, betrayed his comrades, betrayed them deliberately.”

After four months, Medvedev showed up at the office of his commander and submitted his resignation. The commander said Medvedev still had to fight six more months, maybe more—Wagner had the right to extend contracts as it saw fit. He ordered his men to throw Medvedev into a pit, where he was told that the Chekists were coming for him next. But, before they arrived, some sympathetic fellow Wagner fighters helped him flee. In December, Medvedev gave an interview to Vladimir Osechkin, a Russian activist based in France, who has published numerous investigations into Wagner and the Russian security services. Medvedev was on the run inside Russia. “I understand that I am in danger because I know their methods,” he told Osechkin. “I know exactly how they treat people like me.”

Shortly after the interview, Medvedev went to Murmansk, a city above the Arctic Circle, near Russia’s border with Norway. A local driver brought him to the border zone. It was mid-January, and mounds of snow rose out of the frozen ground like dunes. He donned a white camouflage jumpsuit, hopped over one fence, then another. Two shots rang out; a guard dog was barking. Medvedev ran across a frozen lake, his feet plunging into the frigid water in places where the ice was brittle. On the Norwegian side, he collapsed on the ground and pulled out a bottle of vodka that he had brought with him. As he walked down an empty road, a police car pulled up. Medvedev tried to explain himself. “Wagner,” he said.

“Wagner?” one of the Norwegian officers asked, incredulously.

Last September, a Ukrainian counter-offensive expelled Russian forces around the city of Kharkiv, cutting off a position from which they were advancing on Bakhmut. Prigozhin criticized the Russian Defense Ministry for the retreat. “Send all these scumbags to the front line with guns and bare feet,” he said.

The new battle lines meant that capturing Bakhmut no longer promised an obvious route for Russia to seize the Donbas. Instead, Bakhmut became a means for both armies to tie up and degrade the other’s forces, so as to exhaust them for future battles. “Our task is not Bakhmut itself,” Prigozhin said last November, “but the destruction of the Ukrainian Army and the reduction of its combat potential.” The operation, he went on, had been dubbed “the Bakhmut meat grinder.”

This was a politically convenient line for Prigozhin to take, given that, nearly a year into Wagner’s efforts to seize Bakhmut, the mercenary force was only advancing a few metres a day. “Bakhmut became a kind of fetish that the Defense Ministry and general staff weren’t particularly eager to throw themselves into,” the Russian defense source told me. “Russian military command came to the conclusion that, if Prigozhin wants to take this city so badly, then let him.”

According to a former Wagner fighter, whom I’m calling Bogdan, the meat grinder was nothing like war as he remembered it. Two decades earlier, he had spent more than a year as a young Army conscript in Chechnya, where Russian forces carried out a brutal counter-insurgency campaign. His life had been a series of tragic events since then. His wife died suddenly, in her mid-twenties, leaving him alone with their two daughters. He became addicted to heroin, then mephedrone, known in Russia as sol, or salt. In 2021, he was convicted of possession with intent to distribute and sentenced to eleven years in prison. By then, he was H.I.V.-positive. When Wagner recruiters showed up at his prison, in the Ural Mountains, he was in an advanced stage of infection. He had nine years left on his sentence, though he’d likely be dead before the end of it. If he went to fight in Ukraine, there was a chance he could finish his tour after six months and see his daughters again.

I met Bogdan earlier this summer, in a prison in Dnipro, a large city in southeastern Ukraine, a hundred and forty miles from Bakhmut. He has a tired, hollow face, and speaks in a falsetto whisper. Bogdan said that the Wagner recruiters told him he’d be responsible for evacuations, bringing the dead and injured off the front lines. They gave him a red bracelet to wear on his wrist, which indicated his H.I.V. infection. In early February, after three weeks of training, he was sent to Bakhmut.

No one there said anything about evacuations. Instead, he was ordered to join a group of twelve soldiers and prepare to storm a Ukrainian position. It was still dark when he and the others set off, entering a patch of forest outside the city. Bogdan could see craters from explosions and bodies lying in the snow. Suddenly, his unit was attacked with grenade launchers. Everyone scattered; Bogdan crawled over the frozen ground, trying to feel for the way he had come, and groped the arms and legs of fallen Wagner fighters. When he heard drones overhead, he went limp and played dead. Even nighttime wasn’t safe, as snipers with thermal scopes hunted whatever moved. “It was like a video game,” he told me.

The next day, he was shot in the arm. He jabbed himself with a painkiller from his first-aid kit, and passed out. He awoke, surrounded by Ukrainian soldiers. “Are you going to kill me?” he asked. “No,” came the reply. “We’re taking you prisoner.”

Wagner was losing between fifty and a hundred fighters a day. News of the high casualty rates had reached Russian inmates, fewer of whom were willing to join. At the same time, the Defense Ministry had begun drawing its own recruits from the prisons, signing up convicts for armed formations called Storm-Z. If the Defense Ministry was keen to limit Wagner’s influence, cutting off its supply of convict fighters was one way of doing it. In February, Prigozhin announced that Wagner was ending its program of recruiting prisoners. Later that month, he shifted the deadline for taking Bakhmut. “Progress is not as fast as we would like,” he said, insisting that Russia’s “monstrous military bureaucracy” was to blame.

Olga Romanova, who runs Russia Behind Bars, a criminal-justice advocacy group, said that she and her staff had been in touch with several hundred prisoners who joined up with Wagner. “I heard the same thing from them, over and over,” she said. “No one is waiting for me on the outside. I have no home, no family. At least here I’m needed.” To Romanova, who has defended the rights of Russian prisoners for fifteen years, Prigozhin’s exploitation of convict soldiers contains a cruel irony. “You could say that Wagner achieved something we’ve never had in Russia—post-penitentiary rehabilitation,” she said. “Only in the most terrible and gruesome way imaginable.”

On May 5th, Prigozhin posted a video of himself standing in a dark field, his flashlight trained on a row of dead bodies. “These are boys from Wagner who died today,” he says. “Their blood is still fresh!” The camera pans across the field, revealing yet more bodies, in soiled camouflage uniforms. “You will eat their guts in Hell,” he says. “Shoigu, Gerasimov, where is the fucking ammunition?”

Prigozhin threatened to pull his forces out of Bakhmut if they didn’t receive more ammunition. Apparently, he got what he wanted, because he soon announced that Wagner would stay. But the rift inside Russia’s war camp was striking. The member of Russia’s political élite said, “How is it that he gets away with saying what others would be imprisoned for in two seconds?” The answer, he went on, was likely that Putin had seen Prigozhin deliver results when the regular Army had stalled: “In wartime, you have to use whatever methods you have, without paying too much attention to side effects.”

By the middle of May, Wagner controlled more than ninety per cent of Bakhmut. But, even as the Ukrainian military was pushed out of the city, it was recapturing territory on the flanks, turning Bakhmut into both a prize and a trap. Prigozhin claimed that Wagner had handed over these areas to the regular Russian Army, and thus it was the Defense Ministry, not Wagner, that was responsible for their loss. “This is not called regrouping,” he said. “This is fleeing.” He warned that “attempts by the Defense Ministry in the information field to sugarcoat the situation” risked leading to a “global tragedy for Russia.” He scolded, “We must stop lying immediately.”

Around that time, I travelled to the Donbas and spent several days in Ukrainian-held towns outside Bakhmut. Soldiers were staying in abandoned houses, and tanks and armored personnel carriers streamed up and down the roads. A Ukrainian commander told me that he and his men had initially been confused by some of Wagner’s tactics: “We saw them running around with sledgehammers, and at first couldn’t figure out what for.” Officers eventually realized that Wagner was demolishing walls, so that its fighters could navigate the city without making themselves visible.

In one battle for an apartment building, the commander told me, Ukrainian forces managed to push back a group of Russian troops and hold a position from which they mounted a counterattack. Then they intercepted an appeal on Russian radio lines, calling for backup from “Psychos”—that is, Wagner storm troopers. The Psychos exhausted the Ukrainian soldiers with their sheer numbers and unwillingness to retreat, even when they were taking losses. “Our guys couldn’t hold on,” the Ukrainian commander said. “They had to pull back.”

One afternoon in mid-May, I drove to an abandoned gas station that served as a staging point for troops. A U.S.-supplied mrap armored vehicle rumbled past. A piece of heavy artillery, hidden in the trees, fired in the direction of Bakhmut, shaking the ground with each blast. A car full of soldiers drove up. Their commander, a jolly man with a thick orange beard, nodded in the direction of the city, a few miles down the road. “That’s where Hell begins,” he told me. They put on body armor, loaded magazines into their weapons, and sped off.

I was there to meet Anton Lavryniuk, a Ukrainian battalion commander whose soldiers had been fighting Wagner in and around Bakhmut for six months. Combat had been exhausting. “Imagine today you killed twenty people. Yesterday it was twenty. The day before that it was thirty. Every day they come, and get mowed down in whole rows,” he told me. “What’s more, you see these rows of bodies, and no one is trying to pull them out. Today’s assault simply marches over the same ground where yesterday’s bodies are still lying.” In some cases, Lavryniuk saw that individual soldiers in his unit were struggling, psychologically as much as physically, and he sent them to the rear for a few days of rest. “They need to get their brains untwisted,” he said.

Lavryniuk noted that, as Wagner’s losses mounted, the number of storm troopers in each wave had become smaller—as few as six per group. One aspect of the group’s tactics remained constant, though: the practice of “zeroing out.” Lavryniuk and his men intercepted frequent radio traffic on the battlefield in which Wagner commanders gave the order: “Anyone who takes a step back, zero them out.” Lavryniuk told me, “We heard this over and over.”

I had received conflicting accounts about the decrease in Wagner artillery fire. Sources in both Ukraine and Russia noted dips in firing rates last spring, and cited a general rationing of munitions along the front. “Everything is regulated in the Army,” the former Russian military official said. “There are prescribed rates of ammunition consumption that dictate how much artillery you need for this or that operation.” Lavryniuk, for his part, doubted the sincerity of Prigozhin’s complaints about a lack of ammunition: “In many places, the intensity of fire was greater than before.” His men had adopted an ironclad rule. As soon as Wagner forces made contact, they hugged the ground or changed firing position, because an artillery barrage was imminent. “Wagner operates according to scorched-earth tactics,” Lavryniuk said. “They don’t storm a trench or a building until they’ve levelled it completely.”

Two days later, Bakhmut was fully occupied. President Volodymyr Zelensky initially denied that the city had fallen, but within days it was clear that no Ukrainian troops remained. Prigozhin announced that his fighters were withdrawing and would hand over their positions to the regular Russian Army. In another video, he walks among burned-out apartment blocks, giving instructions to his men, and declares that Wagner will leave Bakhmut by June 1st. His soldiers needed to regroup for a new mission.

In hindsight, the capture of Bakhmut was the beginning of the end for Wagner in Ukraine, the moment when, once it had accomplished its stated goal—at an extraordinary cost in men and matériel—its role and influence could only decrease. In the days after Wagner’s aborted mutiny, Prigozhin went largely quiet, releasing just a cryptic audio message. “We started our march because of an injustice,” he said. All that he and his men had wanted, he went on, was to “avoid the destruction of Wagner.” Prigozhin was equally adamant that Wagner’s short-lived insurrection had not been aimed at Putin or the Russian state: “We did not have the goal of overthrowing the existing regime and the legally elected government.”

Three days after the uprising, Konstantin Remchukov, a newspaper editor in Moscow with Kremlin connections, was invited to a meeting with Putin and other media executives. Remchukov described Putin as energized and focussed, and said that he spoke of poring through Wagner’s past contracts with the state. “Putin doesn’t believe there is such a thing as selfless opposition to his rule,” Remchukov said. “He always looks for a material reason.” Putin revealed that same day that the state had paid Wagner nearly a billion dollars during the past year. Dmitry Kiselev, a television propagandist, named an even higher sum—nearly ten billion dollars in state funds for Wagner over its lifetime. “Prigozhin has gone off the rails because of big money,” Kiselev said.

In the wake of the insurrection, Putin appeared to take a measured approach with Wagner. Hundreds of Russian citizens who have criticized the authorities and the war in less vivid terms than Prigozhin have been imprisoned, fined, and removed from their jobs or universities, and none of them sent an armored column on the road to Moscow. But, at least for now, Putin has decided that imprisoning Prigozhin would risk making him a martyr while also undermining Russia’s military effort. “What’s the most important political priority for Putin right now?” Remchukov asked. “Victory in the special military operation.” Wagner may yet prove useful for that goal, and the dismantling of its forces in the middle of a war would be messy, rife with distractions and dangers for the Kremlin. Putin appears to have concluded that the Wagner insurrection wasn’t aimed at him personally—a convenient position, in that it doesn’t force him to take any bold or risky action. “If they aren’t against me,” Remchukov said, paraphrasing Putin, “we can leave them in place for the solving of important problems.”

Indeed, for a person whom Putin had called a traitor in all but name, Prigozhin retained a remarkable level of influence and access. Journalists observed that a private plane linked to him made several flights to Moscow and St. Petersburg. The former Russian military official told me that Prigozhin had spent considerable time in Moscow, advocating for himself and his business empire with high-ranking figures: “He’s going around beating himself on the chest, saying that he’ll continue to fight on behalf of Russia. Let’s see whether he’s allowed to or not.”

Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed that, on June 29th—five days after Wagner’s failed march on Moscow—Putin met with Prigozhin and dozens of Wagner’s top commanders at the Kremlin. The meeting lasted three hours. “They emphasized that they are staunch supporters and soldiers of the head of state and commander-in-chief—and also said they are prepared to fight for the country going forward,” Peskov said. “Putin heard out the commanders and proposed further employment options and further combat options.”

In Ukraine, Wagner was but one piece of the military effort; elsewhere it represents the majority of the Russian presence. Gabidullin, the former senior adviser of Wagner’s isis Hunters, spoke to a number of Wagner fighters in Syria, who told him that the uprising had not affected their operations: “They say that they expect to continue their work, even if certain conditions change.” Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said of Wagner’s missions in the C.A.R. and Mali, “This work, of course, will continue.”

Still, Putin is unlikely to repeat the same mistake twice: allowing a private army led by a hotheaded sadist to take an outsized role in Russia’s security. “How can Putin claim to have total control over the country, and then something like this happens?” the member of the Russian political élite said. “They’ll have to lose their independence and be integrated into the Army.” But putting Wagner on a tighter leash would lead to a very different Wagner, one that, as the U.S. defense official put it, would trade “an increase in control for a reduction of deniability.” That would lessen the danger of such a group, but it would also challenge the fundamental reasons that the Kremlin found it useful in the first place.

By July, a contingent of several thousand Wagner fighters had made it to Belarus, setting up camp near the town of Asipovichy, where the Belarusian Defense Ministry said they would train local reservists. Prigozhin paid a visit, making his first public appearance since the mutiny. He brought the Wagner flag from the base in Molkino, which had been emptied out. “We fought with dignity,” Prigozhin told the assembled troops. “We’ve done a great deal for Russia.” Wagner, he went on, would now prepare for new missions, including a reinvigorated presence in Africa. “Maybe we’ll return to the special military operation at a time when we are sure that we won’t be forced to disgrace ourselves and our experience,” he said. He then introduced Dmitry Utkin—“the one who gave us the name Wagner”—who stepped forward, his face covered in the shadow of early evening. The crowd applauded and whistled; Utkin tipped his cap. “This is not the end,” he said, “but just the beginning of the biggest job in the world, which will be carried out very soon.” He switched to English and yelled, “Welcome to Hell!”

Published in the print edition of the August 7, 2023, issue, with the headline “The Making of a Mutiny.”